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Pandemic Worsened Impact of Alzheimer’s Disease

Friday, June 04, 2021
Two-thirds of people with Alzheimer's disease are women. Photo by Andrew Taylor/Pixabay

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.

Alzheimer’s disease has always been a frightening diagnosis for the patient and their loved ones. The COVID-19 pandemic made it worse.

People with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are at higher risk of getting the coronavirus; dementia and the coronavirus share many risk factors, including increased age, cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Alzheimer’s patients are more likely to be severely affected by COVID-19. Deaths from Alzheimer’s and other dementias increased 16% during the pandemic, the Alzheimer’s Association reported. Even before the pandemic, it was the nation’s sixth leading cause of death, claiming an estimated 121,500 lives in 2019.

Social distancing protocols that restricted gatherings and outings also increased the likelihood of anxiety and agitation among patients. That has increased challenges for the more than 11 million people in the U.S. who are unpaid caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s now affects an estimated 6.2 million seniors in the U.S. — nearly two-thirds of them women. That number is expected to more than double within the next 30 years as the population ages, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In New Jersey, the number of seniors with Alzheimer’s is expected to increase by 10.5% in the next four years.

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. NewBridge Services has gathered information about the disease and advice on how patients and caregivers can cope.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, and currently irreversible, brain disorder that destroys memory and thinking skills over time. It is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 found abnormal clumps and tangled bundles of fibers in the brain of a woman who suffered memory loss, unpredictable behavior and problems using language before dying, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIH).

Years before symptoms begin, abnormal deposits of two proteins form in the brain: amyloid beta causes plaques to develop between neurons, while tau accumulates into tangles inside the nerve cells. Neurons eventually die and connections between them no longer function. 

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, affecting about 1 in 9 Americans over age 65. Watch this four-minute NIH video on how Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging.

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

That is not fully understood, but it’s believed that several factors are involved:

  • Age is the best known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Genetics likely plays a role
  • Evidence suggests risk factors for heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Serious head injuries are linked to future risk of Alzheimer’s

Early Signs of Alzheimer’s

Memory problems are usually among the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease onset, according to the NIH. Others are:

  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion about time or place
  • Trouble with spacial relationships
  • Problems with using words, in speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things, and not being able to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgement
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood or personality

Is there a cure?

There is no cure yet, but medications can slow memory loss and improve people’s quality of life. An early diagnosis may allow for more effective treatment. It also can help in maintaining healthy relationships between the person with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones because the cause of new behaviors is understood.

How is Alzheimer’s treated?

No medications can reverse Alzheimer’s, but some can slow the progression of symptoms. Medicines and other treatments also are used to treat behavioral symptoms of the disease: sleeplessness, wandering, agitation, anxiety, aggression, restlessness and depression, according to the NIH. Scientists are developing and testing interventions to address the disease itself.

How can people prevent developing Alzheimer’s?

Research shows that a healthy lifestyle supports brain health and may help prevent Alzheimer’s. Here are recommendations from the NIH and the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Exercise regularly, which increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetable and whole grains, and limits sugar and saturated fats
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Keep your mind active
  • Control your blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Manage chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • “Fall-proof” your home and wear seatbelts to reduce the risk of head injuries
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit alcohol consumption

Tips for Caregivers

NewBridge Services professionals pulled together tips for caregivers on supporting loved ones and managing their own well-being. Caregivers can help their loved one by:

    • Helping them make and follow a daily routine
    • Helping to schedule appointments/write to-do lists
    • Encouraging independence but providing help as needed
    • Making physical activity part of the daily routine
    • Preparing healthy meals for a well-balanced diet
    • Recognizing situations that could be stressful for loved ones
    • Engaging in enjoyable outings and activities together
    • Speaking calmly and listening to loved one’s concerns and frustrations

Caregivers themselves can remain healthy by:

    • Building a support system
    • Speaking with other caregivers/joining a support group
    • Asking for help when you need it
    • Eating healthy foods and exercising
    • Continuing to do enjoyable activities
    • Keeping medical appointments
    • Not taking it personally when their loved one is forgetful

The responsibilities can feel overwhelming, but there are ways to manage them. Look into community resources, such in-home care, visiting nurses, adult day programs and meal delivery services — and use them!

NewBridge Services connects seniors and their families with support services through NewBridge SAIL (Senior Assistance for Independent Living), a free program for Morris County residents age 60 and over. NewBridge SAIL also links seniors with community services, such as bill-paying assistance and Meals on Wheels, to keep them as independent as possible. If you or someone you know needs help, visit NewBridge’s website or call (973) 316-9333.

It’s normal for caregivers to experience denial, fear, anger, frustration, stress, anxiety, grief and depression. Get counseling if you need it. Try meditation and mindfulness techniques. Spending a few minutes sitting quietly and breathing deeply and slowly can be calming.

Home safety will become increasingly important as the disease progresses:

  • Have a handrail installed for stairs
  • Put safety plugs into electrical outlets
  • Consider safety latches on cabinet doors (if needed)
  • Clear items on the floor that your loved one might trip over 
  • Secure household products that could be dangerous

The Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institutes of Health provide a wealth of information for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Visit  alzheimers.gov and alz.org.

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Women account for two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients. Photo shows elderly woman holding a tissue to her eyes.

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